I had been interested in yoga and meditation for years.
As a child witnessing my father, a Buddhist at the time, go into his special room, close the door, chant, and then get quiet, I became intrigued by the peaceful energy he embodied when he exited his sacred space.
At around four years old, I would sit on the floor with my ear against the door, my own body calmed by his chanting and entranced by the silence that followed. During my years as a dancer in performing arts high school, we received a guided meditation or sun salutation here or there, but ballet was my focus.
Yoga: learning I can love my body.
When yoga came into my life with consistency and steadiness, I was 22 years old, and recovering from relational trauma and a battle with anorexia. I was grieving the loss of a professional ballet career I had recently left in order to feel healthy and whole again.
To say I was lost and extremely anxious would have been an understatement.
The philosophy of yoga gave me a roadmap for how to live a peaceful and less conflicted life. The pranayama empowered me with the knowledge that I could regulate my nervous system state and ease my distress without medication or drugs.
The asanas and flow allowed me to dance again but while approaching my body with an energy of love, less often led by the shaming inner critic who ruled my mind during my dance days. Yoga helped me reconnect to, reexperience, and develop a healthy relationship with my body—to see it as a vehicle for my soul as opposed to something put on the earth for others’ pleasure or critique.
When I first cultivated a yoga practice I was unaware of the larger Yoga Industry that defines the practice as we see it in the U.S., and also dictates who is visible within and receives access to this practice and its healing benefits.
The Yoga Industry, a $16 billion dollar industry as of 2016, relates to the goods and services related to yoga, and the benefits of yoga, sold as commodity, for profit. This includes yoga classes, festivals and events, mats and props, magazines and books, and claims about what yoga can do for us.
While a separate idea from yoga practice itself, the Yoga Industry is inescapable if we are to participate in yoga publicly in our capitalist society, and especially if we become teachers or those who personally profit from yoga.
Experiencing yoga for the first time at my university, with a teacher who was in her 50s, incredibly sweet and loving, did not look like the models we see on the cover of Yoga Journal Magazine, and did not overvalue asana over the other limbs of yoga, sheltered me—I am grateful for that.
It was not long though before I would venture out from this yogic bubble and relearn society’s truth about “my” body.
My entry into the Yoga Industry: my body is currency, I’m for profit.
The year was 2006. 23 years old, newly embodied, bright-eyed, and eager, my last semester of my undergraduate degree was over and so was my first yoga experience. I went to my teacher and asked her about some of the local yoga studios. Yoga was now a part of my life and I was not giving it up.
I didn’t know anything about hot yoga, outside of the one Bikram class my roommate dragged me to at 18, but I had recently spotted a hot yoga studio around the corner from my apartment. My gentle and encouraging teacher said, “I think you might like it!”
The very next day I took an evening class at the studio, purchasing the new student special. It was hot. Really f*cking hot in there. I felt like I was going to pass out multiple times and the dizziness I experienced reminded me of the not-so-far-behind-me days of anorexia when my body felt so starved of calories and nutrition that I couldn’t see straight.
I wasn’t sure about hot yoga, but I decided to go back.
As I entered the studio for class number two, the owner behind the desk said to me with a remarkable grin on her face, “You should do my teacher training! I need young, thin, cute girls like you up in the front leading class.”
My confusion and disbelief ensued. What the hell was this lady talking about? I had experienced firsthand that yoga was not about looks; on the contrary, I got to reclaim my body in my own regard through my practice. My body was mine—not to be put on display for others’ convenience.
I politely declined, reminded her I had only been practicing yoga for four months, and told her that I was too busy, preparing to enter graduate school.
I continued to practice at the studio, not realizing then what I realize now: though I had been drawn to yoga seeking peace and spiritual progression, I was easily romanced by the physical impacts of hot yoga that mirrored those of the anorexic days and ushered me back into a familiar pattern of pushing my body beyond its limits. A pattern which then made me feel like I was “doing good.”
What had been healing for me, had now become another way for me to self-harm. I was lost. This was not yoga.
I ended up completing the teacher training, teaching at the studio right away, and gained a steady following. My dance-like vinyasa classes encouraged gymnastic feats and I was told by students that my classes were “really hard, and that’s a compliment!”
Fortunately, less than a year later, I found my way into another yoga space that was highly physical but also highly spiritual, and I regained my focus. However, what I experienced at the hot yoga studio during my first teaching gig was only the beginning of a reignited spark of a conflicted relationship with my body as I continued to work within the yoga industry.
Detox implications, diet culture: your body is toxic.
The Yoga Industry is one that is not only reflective of the dynamics of race, power, and privilege that rule our society, but also informed by a culture that commodifies, commercializes, and sells most things, often including one’s dignity, for profit.
In the book Yoga, The Body, and Embodied Social Change: An Intersectional Feminist Analysis, Diana York Blaine describes her research in reviewing five commercials in which yoga takes a featured role.
The advertisements are all selling products unrelated to the Yoga Industry, but there is a commonality is that they either use: “yoga not as a means of resisting sexism but as a mechanism for achieving the bodily perfection necessary to meet with male approval and access to men’s resources” or appropriate yoga in some other way, shape, or form, including promises of “self-transformation through physical, not spiritual change.”
With the proclamation that a woman’s body is in need of physical repair and yoga is the beautifying cure.
The media informs our understanding of who yoga is for—who is deserving of the practice and benefits. We see yoga being advertised as a way to increase one’s power, and for women, this means we should be “young, thin, and cute,” just as the hot yoga studio owner had informed me.
As teachers within the yoga industry, we are susceptible to encourage these dynamics within the spaces we occupy, should we not be aware or create an intention to hold space differently.
In “The Yoga In America Study of 2016” the top reason people referred to for “starting yoga” was flexibility at 61 percent of respondents. According to the data, no one provided spirituality or spiritual growth as a reason for commencing a practice—although that would be most in alignment with yoga’s origins.
As a culture, we’ve taken yoga, discredited and left invisible the people from whom the tradition came, and made it all about the physical and material.
It wasn’t until I returned to graduate school to get a degree in social work and specialize in trauma that I began to think about language in yoga spaces. As I developed the original curriculum for my first trauma-conscious yoga teacher training, I learned to listen more deeply to the unspoken implications behind the spoken word.
As yoga teachers, we are in a position of power, whether we want to be or not. The language we use and the energy we embody can either welcome others to the practice and uplift them or it can ultimately do harm and increase feelings of shame, body dissatisfaction, and displacement.
As yoga teachers in the industry, we have a responsibility to be aware of the ways in which our society’s systemic issues of privilege and oppression are reinforced in the yoga sphere and the direct impact of our words on those who are vulnerable, marginalized, and “othered.”
In my 13 years teaching yoga I have found it commonplace that teachers and studios will hold holiday detox classes that specifically relate to the ideas of a physical detoxifying, oftentimes while championing twisted yoga postures as the savior.
These classes often directly sell and imply the ideas that:
1. Food is toxic (except for certain types of superior foods).
2. Our bodies are toxic.
3. Enjoyment is sinful and it is necessary to repent (detox) to be acceptable in the yoga space (a microcosm of privileged society at large).
The simplified and harmful message implied by these classes: You ate too much, you drank too much, now you need to do lots of twists to make up for it so you can become acceptable again.
There is also very rarely to my knowledge any education provided within these classes about how the body actually detoxifies itself and there is never a backing by research.
This attitude of physically detoxing during the holidays:
1. Gives the potential of shaming people who already have negative body image (oftentimes a result of trauma and membership within marginalized groups).
2. Prioritizes our attachment to our physical bodies: the exact opposite of what yoga, in its truth, is all about.
3. Provides false information about “detoxing” because there is no scientific evidence to support the usual claims that twists or other yoga poses “detox” the organs or body.
4. Encourages those with eating disorders and unhealthy attitudes about food and weight to cling to these false notions and associate yoga with ideals that are not truly a part of the practice.
Detoxing is certainly something our bodies naturally do—a testament to the body’s incredible resiliency. We don’t have to capitalize on false claims to sell yoga.
It’s true—yoga is about purification.
Yoga is about cleansing it’s true—it’s about purifying the mind and dismantling our false identification with and attachment to our body and mind (which we call the ego). Yoga teaches us that we are not this body and mind. Our false belief that we are is what influences us to see through the lenses of “I” and “mine” and creates a personal narrative in which we then see ourselves as separate and divided from others.
Yoga, however, teaches that we are all one and that our sense of separateness is what results from a clouded intellect. Yoga is about buffering our lenses so that we can see clearly.
If going for a run, practicing rigorous asana, or eliminating certain food groups from our diet helps to inspire greater inward connection and ultimately connection and harmony with others—if it helps us show up as a higher expression of ourselves to go out and be of service in creating a just world—then so be it.
But it’s easy to get dishonest with ourselves around the reasons we are doing something, sticking a badge of spirituality on a behavior that may actually be a samskara (conditioned pattern) rooted in unresolved issues from our past.
As yoga educators and teachers, our dharma talks may share of our personal experiences and struggles with shame, body dissatisfaction, and oppression. We can be vulnerable with our students, if we are comfortable doing so, in sharing our histories and our growth.
And we don’t have to project society’s ideas that we are sinful, toxic, and unworthy onto our students.
Let’s teach yoga in its truth—the cleanse we are looking for is one that enables us to dismantle the systems that sexualize women’s bodies, and hold superior bodies that are viewed as abled, cisgendered, well-incomed, white, and male.
The cleanse yoga is after is one that helps us see clearly enough to understand that the divisions we’ve created within ourselves and amongst one another aren’t real. We can work toward being less attached to our bodies and more united in our hearts.
We are not toxic. We are all always healing.
Author: Nityda Gessel
Image: Shana Berenzweig
Editor: Naomi Boshari
Nityda Gessel, LCSW, E-RYT (500), TIYT is a licensed psychotherapist, registered yoga teacher, and trauma-informed yoga therapist. Nityda is the founder/owner of the Trauma-Conscious Yoga Institute providing trauma-focused yoga teacher trainings to yoga teachers and licensed mental health professionals around the United States and online, as well as the owner of Mind-Body Psychotherapy, her integrative psychotherapy practice in Austin, Texas. To learn more about Nityda and her offerings, please check her out at traumaconsciousyoga.com and talkwithnityda.com.
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